Rio Quente, Family Vacations, and New Friends

Remember how I went to Brasília back in September and I thought I wouldn’t be back for years? Funny how things work out, because I got to return!

Well, I actually just got to pass through, but driving down the main stretch and just seeing the ministries again brought me so much satisfaction.

This time, the real destination was Rio Quente Resorts: where Corina (my host aunt) and Claudio (her husband) have some sort of membership which allows them to return each year. This time, they generously invited my family to join them for a week.


Me, mãe, Theo, and Corina.

Rio Quente is one of the most incredible places I’ve been. It’s essentially hot springs morphed into an amusement park that’s designed for the whole family. They have naturally heated pools. They have lazy rivers. They have waterslides and rides. They have diving and kayaking and just about everything you could ever think of. OH, and the food. Don’t even get me started.

As a Floridian this might come as a shock, but it is, in fact, better than Disney in just about every way.

Honestly, we spent most of the time relaxing in the water or eating. Everything about it was wonderful, but my favorite moment happened outside of the park.

One night, my host brother and I went walking down the main stretch in search of some souvenirs. We stopped outside of one store and we were sitting on a bench speaking in English. One of the restaurant owners, Gio, overheard us and immediately approached us, saying (in Portuguese) how much he’s always wanted to learn English. One thing led to another and the next thing I know we’re in Gio’s restaurant meeting his wife, two daughters, and his son.

My host brother and I were given free cokes and we took a seat. We sat in Gio’s restaurant until (no exaggeration) 1 AM. We made a circle and just started talking. The conversation started light, talking about where I’m from and how I, a gringa, ended up in Rio Quente with a Brazilian family. As time went on, the conversation gained more and more weight. We talked about everything, from feminism and abortion to drugs and arms to current events in Brazil and the US. Gio invited us to return the next day and eat for free.


The front of Gio’s restuarant (Taken from TripAdvisor)


We met Gio on the second day of our trip and we saw him every day after. We would either eat there or pick up food or just stop by when we were passing to chat for a bit. Every time I saw him, he was smiling. He was happy. He was so content with his life and where he was at each moment. This brought me so much joy. Despite this “friendship” we developed, I never got to properly say goodbye.

Whenever someone finds out I’m an exchange student, they always ask the same thing: why Brazil? Why not Germany or Spain or literally any other country?

THIS is why Brazil. Not just Brazil, but really South America in general: the people. Maybe I’m terribly mistaken, but I feel like there are very few places in the US or Europe a foreigner would be treated the way I am every day, with such kindness and warmth. Even by strangers. Even with my flawed Portuguese. Everywhere I go people are so helpful, so interested, so welcoming, so wonderful. Brazilian people are truly the best part of this country. Claudio says that’s a political answer. I say it’s just the truth.


The first day at the park. I was excited, to say the least.

Rio Quente was great, but this experience with Gio and his family was far greater. It was probably so small to them, but I can tell you that it was one of the highlights of my exchange. Sitting in that restaurant at 1 AM and discussing complicated topics with people who view the world completely different than me… well, that’s why I did exchange. I was seeking a wider world view, a new perspective, something like that. Day by day, person by person, I’m getting there.

The Blues

I was warned before exchange about the rollercoaster of emotions I’d experience. I was told about how I’d get homesick around the holidays and how I’d get bored as things become increasingly normal here. I thought this was something Rotarians tell exchange students to scare us. I can now assure you this is very real.

Homesick isn’t necessarily the right word for me. Lately, I’m just blue.


Exchange is hard, and there are some days I wake up in a panic because people have stressed so many times that this is only one year of my life, I will never get another opportunity like this, enjoy every second. When I’m down, thinking about this only further paralyzes me.

Lately things have happened, some big and some small, that have brought me down a bit or just irritated me.

The stupidest thing? (I’m laughing as I write this) Getting around! Listen, a “commute” might be a normal part of life, but coming from a school where I rolled out of bed at 7:55 and walked down the hall to my 8 am class, I’m such an amateur. I suck at it! I am late at least once a week to school, usually twice, which isn’t a big deal but it really frustrates me. I want to be in the classroom, even if nothing is happening. No matter how early I leave, traffic is unpredictable. To go to my classes in the afternoon, it takes about an hour, an hour and a half to get there. To get back? An hour and a half to two hours, depending on traffic. This time feels so incredibly wasted that it makes me extremely anxious, as I mentioned before, because I only have a year. I don’t want to spend it sitting in traffic.

Another thing that really has me down lately is the language. When I first got here, I was really motivated. In my free time I studied a lot, wrote down words or phrases I didn’t know, listened only to Portuguese music and avoided Netflix. It paid off – my comprehension is pretty good, when I actually pay attention – but I still cannot speak well, especially in groups of people. I’m more embarrassed now than when I first arrived. It’s been about three months and I still fail to communicate basic things. The worst part? I usually know what I’m going to say, I can hear how it’s supposed to sound in my head, but my mouth literally cannot say the word. Other times I get so anxious in certain situations (like when I’m on the bus) that I can’t relax enough to just LISTEN to what is being said. I’m trying to be proactive about this, though. I told my host brother we’re going to start working on pronunciation. He smiled and said sure.

Some things are a little more serious.

Brazil is the land of extremes. Extreme rich. Extreme poor. Extreme violence. Extreme problems. All of this weighs heavy on my heart.


Taken from

I used to be immune to the homeless people here, who have LITERALLY constructed shelters out of cardboard boxes and rags and dig through the trash just to eat. But the more I see them, the more it’s starting to get to me. It’s really sad. It makes me feel helpless. I want to use my life to help other people, to better society, but I can’t help these people. There are too many. I can’t fix this problem. I don’t even know where to begin. As I enter “real life,” I’m going to have to confront the fact there are some things that can simply not be fixed (although I can guarantee I will die trying) but it is still really hard for me to wrap my head around.

Basically, I’ve been down. Although things have been a little rough for me, but I can still say I wouldn’t change this experience for the world. The people I’ve met, the things I’ve experienced, you wouldn’t begin to believe. The other day I was walking home while the sun was setting and it was a sobering reminder just how lucky I am to be here.


The sunset that made all the difference

Because tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I’d like to end this on a brighter note and focus on the things I’m grateful for here in Brazil: My family is the best. The food is awesome. I’m going on vacation in three days. It’s not as hot as I thought it would be. The city is beautiful, and I’m reminded of this every time I go outside. I have great friends shower me with love. My history classes from this semester continue to inspire me, giving me new content to read. Misunderstandings because of language are hilarious, especially when it’s someone else. My friend is coming from a different city in Brazil to stay with me tomorrow. Brazilians can make a good time out of every situation.


See you tomorrow!

I know I’ll snap out of this mentality soon. Don’t think I’m not still having a blast! Some days are better than others, even when you’re living the dream halfway across the globe.

Escola: Parte II

It’s been almost three months since I first walked through the gates of Coleguium. I don’t think much has changed, but I’ve picked up on a few more peculiarities I still struggle to wrap my head around.


Me, Andy (US), & Camilla (Italy) during a break

My school doesn’t make exchange students do anything but show up. Personally, I don’t think I could sit from 7-12:30 five times a week without at least partially paying attention.

The classes I enjoy the most are history and philosophy (by a landslide) and then literature, english, geography, sociology, and sometimes wording. Math and science here go much more in depth than in the US. For that reason, my lack of Portuguese vocabulary, and the fact I’ve always sucked at math, I sincerely have no idea what’s going on in these classes. I usually spend this time writing in my journal, sketching, or reading books.

The history classes are by far the best.

History I focuses on the history of Brazil. Right now, we’re discussing the end military dictatorship. The teacher is incredible. She’s very passionate and manages to incorporate pieces of Brazilian culture, like music or movies, into each class. Unfortunately, we only have this class once a week for two hours on Tuesdays. Tuesdays have become my favorite day of the week for this reason.

History II is just as incredible. It focuses on world history. It’s the same thing I talked about in APUSH. We just talked about the war in Vietnam and the teacher asked me to talk a little about how that influenced US culture. Somehow this discussion ended in me defending modern economic policies.

I appreciate the fact that these teachers cater to me in small ways. In history, for instance, they started talking about conspiracy theories about the end of the dictatorship. A boy referenced a lady I didn’t know and the teacher took a brief second to explain who the woman was. It’s small things like these that make all the difference.

I talked in my first post about a girl named Bela and a boy (Emanuel) that helped me with the alphabet. These are the people I talk to the most. Bela is the “go-to” person of the class. Have a question? She probably knows it. Missed the homework? She didn’t. She’s the most put together teenager I’ve ever met. And on top of that, she’s just nice. Genuinely nice. Emanuel is great too. He seriously, seriously pushes the language, which I really appreciate. Even though I’m really embarrassed to speak in front of him, I’ve learned a lot that has helped me communicate in crazy situations, like when I ended up taking the bus an hour and a half away from my house late at night.

Overall, I still really like school. But there are some issues that go a little deeper than having to wake up at 5:30 to be to school on time.

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Playing foosball during a break

I think the Brazilian education system is severely flawed. Here, to go to college you have to pass a big test, either the ENEM for public schools or vestibular for private schools. No recommendations. No grades. No essays. Your entire application is this one test score. I am and have always been very strongly against the idea that tests define your intelligence and generally I think the US is moving towards this philosophy as well, implementing the test optional policy. Here, there’s no sign of things changing (that I’ve seen, at least). I’m teaching a 13-year-old girl English and she’s already talking about the pressure she feels from this test that’s 5 years off. That’s no way to run an educational system. In my opinion, at least. School here seems to exist solely to help people master this test.


His head is in his backpack so he can sleep. The funny thing? He’s the smartest kid in the class so no one cares. Most teachers don’t even wake him up to give him back his test scores. They put it on a desk around him or leave it with another student.

Another notable thing is school! turnover! Here, students come and go all the time. At least 5 people that were here when I started three months ago have left, either for personal or academic reasons. We’ve also got new additions to our class.

I’ve mentioned it before, but one thing I really like is the relationships with teachers. In the US, I spent a ridiculous amount of time with my teachers and they ended up becoming some of my best friends. In the US, my friends would make fun of my excessive love for teachers, but here I think everyone is friends with most of their teachers and feels the same way I do. The math teacher sometimes takes students out to an arcade. In my opinion, that makes school SO much enjoyable.

I found out about a month ago that I can’t return to Coleguium after summer vacation. I’m kind of excited to experience something new, but I’m really going to miss it and the people I’ve met there, including some teachers. I’m still uncertain of where I’ll be going next semester (it’s a big work in progress) but right now it looks like I’ll be going to a university here to study relações internacionais (international relations). Reading and writing Portuguese are going well, but I sincerely don’t think my speaking skills are good enough for college. I guess we’ll see!

Inbound Orientation

When I was either a freshman or a sophomore, my art teacher (one of the best people I’ve ever met) said the following: “I like my classes with the seniors more. By that time, they’ve developed a personality.” I always thought this was funny because I spent most of my time with her. (Seriously. About 4-5 hours a day minimum).


My art teacher and I at graduation, when I had, in fact, developed a personality.

I kind of understood it, but not to the extent I do now. Freshman, sophomore, and even junior Hannah lacked the confidence and self love to jump halfway across the world and construct an entirely new life, new self. I’m still amazed there are 14 and 15 year olds who have the courage to do such a thing. 

This weekend was inbound orientation. It was, no exaggeration, one of the best weekends of my life. So many different events across the course of the weekend highlight the level of confidence I’ve achieved, which was nonexistent my early years in high school. 

The weekend started with a talent show. If you know me, you’d know this is the kind of thing I hate, the kind of thing where I hide in the back and hope no one notices I exist. Well, a Rotary intern and my first Brazilian friend had mentioned performing together since I first arrived. I thought he was joking. He was not. So next thing I know, after the Mexicans had performed some sick dance and people had made funny jokes, Lucas and I are standing in front of all the inbounds “singing” (lip syncing) “The Start of Something New” from High School Musical. It was awesome. 


Lucas (taking the selfie) and our team for the games.

I’d say the weekend as a whole was a lot like that moment. You’re just kind of thrown into things and you either do really well or you’re terrible and fail, but in the end it’s always okay. The second day we had a competition between three groups of exchange students in various obstacles. I am not athletic, I’ve never been athletic, so I kind of stood to the side of things. But there was one event where they needed the smaller people to carry through a small rope structure without hitting the sides. This was my moment to shine. All I had to do was stay very still, put my hair up, and tuck my t-shirt into my spandex so my teammates could carry me through the rope. This is the event I’ve been waiting for my entire life. 


We were trying to take a nice picture when the boys starting splashing water on us.

It’s funny, because I used to be a very private person. I was ashamed of the things I’d done in the past. I thought my actions made me a bad person, an outcast, someone not worthy of love or friendship. I’ve stopped caring about what people know and what people think because the past is the past. It’s what made me who I am and it’s showed me who I do and do not want to be. For this reason, I’ve been able to make friends who know ridiculous pieces of information about me. Friends that can tease me and that I can tease. It’s so much more fun this way.

Skylar, for instance.  I swear we are the same person. The same thoughts, the same likes, the same experiences. Well, to some degree. We think similarly. It’s incredible that I only met her in person three days ago, because it feels like a million. The coolest part? We’re probably going to the same university when we return to the US. And if we don’t, we’ll at least be in the same city. And I think that’s pretty cool. Here, we’re 6 hours away from each other, but we’re hoping to meet over our summer vacation and we’ll definitely see each other at the other district events. 


Skylar and I

I have to say that in general my favorite part of exchange is the people. I’ve talked a lot about the love I have for Brazilians (or so I think I have) but this weekend I was exposed to so many people from so many different nationalities. I got to talk music with a Mexican boy, talk politics with Americans, talk the Holocaust and WWII with a Polish girl. I got to talk to so many unique people with lives entirely different from my own. That is the exact reason I wanted to go on exchange. 

I’m glad I’ve developed a personality I’m proud of, one that I’m confident of, so much that I can already let loose with you guys. It’s been such a blast to get to know you, whether it’s been the last three days or the last three months. (Yes, three months. Some of us were talking before we came!)


From left to right: Nikolaj (Denmark), me, Jorge (Mexico), Skylar (USA), Nicola (Switzerland)

This weekend was probably one of my favorite yet. Between dancing in the pool and every single exchange student leaving with a sunburn, there was this sense of community and comradeship that filled the air around us. We’re now connected, every single one of us, in a way that can only be understood entirely by exchange students. We’re a different kind of community, a dysfunctional family. I adore you guys. 


All of the inbound exchange students in my district (4760).


The first new content I truly understood in school pertained to Brasília, the capital of Brazil. Basically, in the 1960s Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira (I can never remember his full name but it’s okay because everyone refers to him as JK) moved the capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília to better unify Brazil and make the capital less vulnerable to outside attacks.

Aside from this historical tidbit, I’ve always thought Brasília seemed cool, but it seemed unlikely I’d make my way there during my year in Brazil. It’s about 10-12 hours from my city and much less popular than Rio and São Paulo, so I’d just accepted this reality and focused on how much I love Belo Horizonte and all it has to offer.

Last week, mãe’s family was in town visiting. There, I got to meet her older sister, Corina, and her husband, Claudio. They turned out to be from Brasília. Shortly after we started talking, they invited me to their house in Brasília. At first, I thought they were playfully inviting me. You know, when you invite someone to come stay with you but it’s a far-fetched idea. Well, I guess this wasn’t so far-fetched. Somehow, things all fell into place and I received permission to go to Brasília for a few days!


One of our stops on the drive to Brasília, where I tried pamonha for the first time. Pamonha is a corn dish that google describes as “a paste made from sweet corn, boiled and wrapped in corn husks.” This entire store had a million corn dishes. Muito legal (super cool).

The distance to Brasília from my city is about the same distance from my city in North Carolina to my city in Florida, so I expected the drive to be very similar. To my surprise, it was very, very different. Here there’s a “highway” connecting the cities that I believe was constructed only with the move of the capital from Rio. The “highway” is primarily one lane each way and only passes through a few towns the entire journey. There’s no exits every few miles with McDonald’s or gas stations.

My first day I got to go to Praça dos Três Poderes, or “plaza of three powers.” It receives this name because it’s located right next to the President’s office (executive power), the Supreme Court (judicial power), and the National Congress (legislative power). I found it odd that here in Brazil people can’t visit the President or Vice President’s residences. In the US, the White House is right in the middle of everything and tons of people visit it every year.


Basic selfie with statue of JK in the Praça dos Três Poderes

I also got to visit the ministérios, or ministries. There are a significant number of these, but the first one I saw was the ministério dos direitos humanos, or human rights ministry. I loved this.


Ministério dos Direitos Humanos

Given my aspirations in the international relations area, Corina and Claudio made it a point to show me the ministério das relações exteriores, or foreign affairs ministry. This was LEGAL DEMAIS (too cool). I loved it. Adored it. The building was primarily no photographs, but the things they have inside… nossa. Paintings. Carpets. Sculptures. Tables where vital international treaties were signed. It was incredible.

Some places in the ministério das relações exteriores are cut off for tourists but opened to ambassadors or certain foreign officials when they come to Brazil for work. I’m hoping one day I’ll return to Brazil for work and be able to see the areas that were cut off to 18-year-old me. I guess we’ll just have to see.

I really appreciated this trip because I got to learn SO much about Brazilian politics. Brazil is plagued with corruption – the last two presidents have faced severe scandals, so bad that the last president was impeached for corruption and money laundering. The former VP and current president is also facing similar accusations, although he’s from a different political party. Corina and Claudio took me to see a movie called “Polícia Federal: a lei é para todos” (Federal Police: the law is for all or Federal Police: No One is above the law).


The movie poster

This movie follows Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) which is an ongoing investigation into corruption in Brazilian politics. This film has been labeled alt-right propaganda, but I’m not so sure. I myself am pretty left, but I do think there is some substance in the accusations brought before the former presidents, both leftists. Some claim about 70% of Brazilian politicians are involved in corruption which makes it really difficult for Brazil to see an end in sight.


I saw this in a gas station but I think it really highlights the political atmosphere here in Brazil. Lula is one of the leftist presidents who has been accused (and to some degree, proved) of stealing very large sums of money, among other things. Someone first wrote “fora Lula ladrão,” which means “get out Lula thief.” Someone then added to it, changing it to “Lula ladrão: roubou meu coração,” which means “Lula thief: he stole my heart.” Two polar opposite opinions.

Now, the political situation in America is a mess, don’t get me wrong, but learning about all of this reminded me how much worse things could be.

Claudio and Corina, like most Brazilians, are very religious. Very catholic. Now, I’m not religious. Claudio kept jokingly (although not so jokingly) saying I can’t leave Brasília until I’m baptized. This said, we dedicated a fair amount of our time to religious affairs.

Claudio and I visited the two well-known churches of Brasília: Catedral Metropolitana de Nossa Senhora Aparecida (Catedral de Brasília) and Santuário Dom Bosco. These buildings were INSANE. Each had intricate stained-glass covering the majority of the insides.

I also, of course, had those terrible, awkward exchange student moments. The last day I was there, a Sunday, I went to church with Claudio and Corina. There, a lady asked me to help with the offering, so I agreed. As I mentioned before, I’m not catholic, so I don’t understand the cross thing they do and I haven’t quite gotten a hold of the whole bowing concept. I had to file down the isle and bow when I got to the front, then stand in the front with the offering container. Things went smoothly, until I guess I missed my cue and didn’t bow at the right time. Corina and Claudio just kind of laughed. Things were fine, but I’m sure I looked so dumb. Typical gringa.

While I got to see and do a lot in Brasília, I also had a lot of down time. I got to sketch for the first time in months. I got to hang out in a hammock. I got to read. I got to listen to new music.


The hammock where I spent many hours

As I mentioned before, I’m hoping this won’t be the last time I see Brasília, but it certainly will be the last time for a long while. Either way, I’m so glad I got to go. Thank you Corina and Claudio for your invitation and your hospitality. Thank you Rotary for granting me permission to go.


*Insert Cliché Family Quote Here*

The past few weeks, I’ve been going back and forth as to what to write about. This post is a little more personal than the last couple, but I’ve decided it reflects how I’m changing the most. It’s for that reason I’ve decided to put myself out there and discuss something I hate talking about most: feelings.

When I was younger, my parents and I clashed. Quite a lot. I was 10, friends with mostly older kids, and convinced I knew it all. You could argue not much has changed, but I’d say I’ve acquired something called “respect.” Between my teenage angst and my pure stubbornness, my relationship with my parents was a little strained. I remember being angry because we never saw eye to eye on anything. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t perceive things the way I did.


Family, circa 2007

My relationship with my family was actually a major factor in my decision to attend boarding school. While I was at boarding school, especially in my last two years, I came to terms with the fact we will never agree entirely and I need to love and accept them for the people they are. This last summer, I spent more time with my parents than I have in a long time. And I’m very glad I did.

Now, bear with me. We’ll get back to this later.

The concept of family in Brazil is overwhelming. It’s something I wish I had known growing up.

As I’ve mentioned before, I spend a lot of time with my mãe. Recently, my pai and brother are home much more than they were in the first bit, so I’ve gotten to know them as well. I adore my family here.

My favorite moments tend to be with my host family.

My mãe owns a women’s clothes store. A few weeks ago, some of the clothes were featured in a fashion show. This meant the whole family attended to support my mãe.


Mãe’s business partner and good friend, Mãe, and I before the fashion show.

In high school, it was a miracle if I wore anything besides black tights and a band t-shirt. Fashion is not for me. My host brother and I had a lot of fun trying to make sense of designers’ clothes, some of which I’m convinced were solely trying to make a social statement. I mean, that’s what art is, or can be, right?


Theo, my host brother, and I. #VapeNation

Last weekend, my mãe and I laid out in the sun for a while listening to Brazilian music before attending a jazz festival that was going on downtown. We really didn’t do much, but I felt so content in this moment. I felt so alive in this moment. And I can’t really explain why. Everything in the world just felt exactly as it should be.


This is the only picture I got from jazz night – some kind of Brazilian food. I can’t remember the name, but it was really good. 

Most recently, my mãe and I went on a hike to overlook the city of Belo Horizonte. The hike was quite the adventure – walking straight up for some distance that I never figured out in the blazing sun.


Definitely worth it

On the way down, we made a mistake and took a wrong turn so we ended up at the bottom of the wrong side of the mountain. The area we ended up in was a little sketchy. This freaked mãe out, so she took off running up the mountain, shouting “run Hannah run!” I have a bad habit of laughing at moments I shouldn’t be laughing, but when I saw her running up the mountain, with her “nossa senhora’s,” I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t run after her. It was too funny to me. If you ask me about this moment, I’ll just start laughing. It’s been one of my favorite moments thus far and I can’t really explain why.

Mãe running away. Mãe’s religious devotion. Mãe’s political opinions. Mãe’s hair!!!

Pai drinking a beer at a jazz festival. Pai’s jokes. Pai’s fear of riding a bike down a steep mountain.

Almost everything they do reminds me of my parents. Yes, you, Tray and Steve.


These people aren’t my real parents, but they treat me like a daughter. They care for me like a daughter. They ask about my happiness and how my day was and where I’m going and even if they leave me home for an hour or two, they send me messages to check on me. It’s not just the fact they’re responsible for me. They genuinely care. They go out of their way to do things for me.


Graduation, May 2017.

If my mãe and pai care so much for me in just three weeks, I can’t imagine the love my parents have for me.  Tray, Steve, I’m so grateful for the equally ridiculous moments we’ve shared. I am so grateful for your unconditional love and sacrifice and concern. I am so grateful to have you both in my life.

I can’t believe it took 18 years and a life across the world for me to fully realize this.



The Beauty of Luck

The way Florida Rotary Youth Exchange determines exactly where you go works as follows: you’re given a list of countries based on your age and the language(s) you speak. Of the countries you’re given, you number them one through however many countries you receive, one being the country you want to go to the most. You are in no way, shape, or form guaranteed your first choice, or really any of the countries on your list. It’s purely a game of luck.

Because I’m older, I received four countries: Brazil, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Greenland, and I numbered them in that order. If you know me, you know my love for South America, so I was really banking on Brazil. Like I said, pure luck.

At our first outbound orientation, Jack, our country coordinator, gave us the opportunity to write a proposal for a city or region in Brazil. After some research, I proposed the city of Curitiba because I was told it is similar to San Francisco (which I adore). I also saw they had a Holocaust museum, which is always of interest to me.

Instead, I received Belo Horizonte, and wow, what a blessing that was.


The view from my host aunt’s house, looking over Belo Horizonte

Belo Horizonte is known, unlike other regions of Brazil, for its hospitality. From the moment I’ve arrived, I’ve felt right at home. Everyone goes out of their way to make sure I’m fed and comfortable and happy.


If I sit alone in class or appear in any way uncomfortable (even though I’m not), the kids go out of their way to make me feel included. 

Luck has been a consistent theme throughout the short period I’ve been on exchange.

Last Saturday, it was a Rotarian’s birthday, so my family and I were invited to attend his party. By pure luck, an outbound student named Fernanda was having a goodbye party down the street. I was invited to attend.

By far the most simple, yet useful, knowledge I acquired in 144 hours of orientation for Brazil was this: always say yes. Even if it grosses you out, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Say yes.

So I said yes, hopped in the trunk of a car, and ended up down the street at a party with no one I knew.



Sarah and I at Fernanda’s party

Within five minutes, I met some of the most incredible people I’ve ever known. Each one went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and at home. They brought me candies and snacks. They asked about American culture. They laughed at my poor attempt at Portuguese and continued to talk to me anyway. They offered me jackets when it got cold. They had me put on sunglasses in the dark and take pictures with them.


See. I wasn’t joking about the sunglasses in the dark. 

Teenagers (in the United States at least) get the reputation of being petty, cliquey, mean, and noninclusive. Whether this is true or not, I can’t tell you. I’m biased.

Teenagers here, at least the ones I’ve encountered thus far, are more kind than you can imagine – the type of kind that goes out of their way to help you stay at the party because you’re getting along so well. The type of kind that helps you get home when you don’t speak the language well enough. The type of kind that asks for an “I’m home” message when they’ve only known you for a few days.

One of the things that has struck me the most is the maturity in relationships. Most of the friends I’ve made have been friends with each other forever, so they’re all very comfortable with each other. They compliment each other constantly and genuinely mean it, which I feel is very rare in the United States. They also greet and say goodbye to each and every person in the room with a hug and a kiss. This is so much more personable and intimate than the United States. I can’t explain exactly why this means so much to me, but I adore it.

In the past few days, I’ve been invited to so many things. Concerts. Parties. Boxing classes. Açaí dates. By pure luck, I met people that have rapped Eminem songs with me and taught me about Brazilian funk and common Portuguese phrases and made me laugh harder than I can remember laughing.


Some friends and I at Sarah’s Despedida Festa. 

It feels like I’ve been here forever, spending hours on end with my lovely mãe, making plans with my new compassionate friends.

I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am at the this very moment, because if it had been one day or month or year off, I would continue to live my life without knowing these people exist.

With all of the bad things that have happened in the world in the last couple years (and days), it’s really nice to have so much good surrounding me. I’ll be sure to hold on to these moments when the bad days come.


If you’ve seen Mean Girls, I’m sure you’re familiar with the following (cliché) exchange:

“I like math Damien”

“Ew why Cady”

“Because it’s the same in every country”


Now, I still hate math, as has been confirmed by the last two days of class, but the principle is the same: being an exchange student is hard.

I’ve gone to school with exchange students for the last four years. We’ve had people from all over: China and Spain, Korea and Brazil, Ghana and Albania. Despite this, I never understood what they were going through. My friend from Ghana, Adwoa, said she cried the first few days and hated things, and I can understand why. It’s hard to transition from one school to another, but especially a school with completely different customs from the previous one.

My transition period has been difficult, but it could be much worse.

Yesterday, I started school. I am one of three exchange students in my class of about 25 people, although I have been told there will be another exchange girl coming from Italy. Besides me, there’s Alberto from Taiwan and Andy from Colorado. I was very relieved to have another student from the US in my class.

My school is called Coleguium and it is bilingual. In this aspect, I’m both lucky and cursed. It’s nice to be able to understand things, as other students can help when I don’t follow a conversation, but it also means it’s easier for me to avoid speaking Portuguese at school. So far, all of my classes have been in Portuguese, which I like a lot.


Our uniforms are basically a t shirt and sweatpants. Not only am I comfortable, but I also don’t have to think about what to wear at 5:45 in the morning. I love it.

I have a much harder time understanding students when they speak. They tend to speak all at once, very loudly and quickly, so the words and sentences blend together more than in any other situation I’ve been in. For this reason (and the fact I can never hear), I almost never know what they’re saying.

Here are some basic differences between my Brazilian school and US school:

  • Students stay in one class and teachers rotate around each period.
  • It’s appropriate for students and teachers to curse or be vulgar around each other.
  • There is no lunch at school, but there is a cafeteria open all day for students to buy food during breaks.
  • There is about five minutes between each class and then an extended break, which lasts about 20 minutes.
  • The school is literally in the middle of the city. From the top of the building, where PE takes place and where students go during breaks, you can see a lot of buildings around. It is very beautiful.
  • All of my teachers are very young. I’d say the oldest is only in her 40s.
  • Most classes don’t have homework (yet, at least) and if they do, it’s relatively short. (Tonight’s is 10 math questions)
  • It’s acceptable for students to not pay attention at all, which is a bit of a shock coming from Salem where we stand when a teacher enters the room, never talk when the teacher is, and get woken up if we sleep. (cue picture below)

There is a class group chat and during class the kids sent this around. Kids sleep, they’re on their phone, they talk while the teacher is. I find it fascinating and quite funny.

My classmates are very friendly and generous. They always share their books with me and take me with them when they leave the classroom, although I’m sure I contribute nothing of substance to their days (yet).

There’s a girl named Izabela in my class who has taken me under her wing. She is very good at English and helps translate some words in lessons (like “fixo,” which refers to the Axis powers in WWII) or just translation in general. She’s also helped me with grammar a lot. Today her and another boy helped me say the alphabet, which will be vital to understanding better and also being able to pronounce things the right way.



Izabela and I

Yesterday, they were talking about what foods they should bring to school today for the exchange students to try. During our break today, we had a little pot luck of food. They brought typical Brazilian snacks and I brought some American candy.


US: Sweettarts, Skittles, Reese’s. Brazil: in the box, coxinha de frango (I think that’s what it’s called – basically chicken bites), doce de leite (dulce de leche squares. Kind of like caramel), paçoquita (basically the inside of a reese’s), and chita abacaxi (kind of like a tootsie roll or laffy taffy, flavored like pineapple).

As I mentioned before, I still hate math and don’t care much for science either, but I still like the classes here. When the teachers use powerpoints or write on the board, I can understand what they’re talking about pretty well.


Barely anyone takes notes and technically I don’t need to, but I figured it’s a good way to learn. (I’m glad I learned what a mole was in the US because I would be so confused right now!)

So far, I really enjoy literature, history, and geography, although literature was a little difficult for me to understand. I’m eager for the day I can analyze Portuguese literature without having to translate so frequently.

A lot of exchange students hate school or wish they could go on exchange and not go to school, but it’s actually one of my favorite parts of the day. I enjoy getting to know the culture and way of life through the students. I also get exposed to some really interesting content. Today Izabela showed me a portion of the textbook which talks about Brazilian politics. I learned about it a little bit when I was in Argentina from my Juans (I miss you guys) but I’m hoping it’s covered in some of my classes. As I mentioned in my last post, politics are getting a lot of attention in Brazil. This is probably the most interesting topic to me.


A page in the book that discusses two former presidents and their philosophy.

I’ve always loved school. If I could, I would go to school in every country. I’m extremely glad to be going to school in Brazil.

Belo Horizonte and My First “Exchange Student” Moments

Before I came to Brazil, I didn’t know what to expect. People told me about the friendliness of the people and the wonderful food and certain songs that may or may not be relevant anymore, but of course hearing about something and experiencing something is always completely different.


My family and I moments before departure.

My first “exchange” moment happened on the plane. I was so nervous. My hands were sweating. I was worried my insufficient Portuguese would get me in trouble (it has, mildly) and my host parents wouldn’t like me for some reason, or something stupid. Welcome to Hannah’s mind! The flight attendant was making rounds. If you’ve ever been on an international flight, they tend to speak the language of the country you’re going to. The flight attendant asked me “frango ou massa” (chicken or pasta) which I knew from Duolingo but my anxiety hindered my understanding. Without even attempting to listen or make out the words , I turned to my neighbor. I’m sure I was white as a ghost and looked like a deer in a headlights. After replaying the moment about twenty times in my head, I finally relaxed and thought about it. I did, in fact, know what he was saying. Had I just relaxed, I could have easily answered the question. So it goes.

After that cringy situation, I arrived to Belo Horizonte, my city, on Monday August 8 at 8 am. I was met by my wonderful pais with a lovely sign!


Meus pais

I was immediately taken aback by how beautiful the city is. It is much bigger than I thought it would be. Buildings extend on forever and when you’re driving you get glimpses out over the entire city. The city is also surrounded by mountains. That’s why it’s called “Belo Horizonte” (Beautiful Horizon).


The view from the back seat of the car. The number of buildings is insane.

My host parents are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

Meu pai is a graphic designer. Since the moment I met him, he emphasized how much he loves America and wants to learn English. His english is very good but he wants it to be perfect. I told him if he teaches me the rules of Portuguese, I’ll help him with his English. He intends to go to the United States one day, where he wants to go to Florida, California, and New York.


My room, which I love.

Minha mãe owns a women’s fashion store. It is incredible. Everything is hand made. The dresses have intricate designs. Everyone there is very nice to me, although I can’t always follow the conversation. There’s a man who works there named Ander and he speaks Spanish, so we were able to communicate.

I spend most of my time with minha mãe. She is one of the most patient people I’ve ever met. Yesterday after school my brain was fried and around 4 it just shut off. There was a period of four hours where I understood nothing the first time, yet she remained calm and continued to rephrase and explain the meaning of words.

Some of my favorite moments thus far have been with minha mãe. She actually reminds me a lot of my mom in the United States. She is very religious. In her office at work she has at least seven pictures of Jesus, Mary, and various saints. I personally am not and have never been a religious person, but I envy her devotion to God and the values she upholds.

We talk a lot about religion, politics, and government. She aligns with Brazil’s conservative values. In the past year, I’ve been called a communist or socialist more times than you count, so I tend to be extremely liberal all around. Although we have very different beliefs, it has been really nice to hear her ideas. Once I get a better grasp on the language, I’d like to ask her more questions about Brazil’s previous leaders, her opinions on current events, ect. Now is a very important time for Brazil because recently there’s been a lot of corruption in the government. It will be interesting to see how they move forward. I very much look forward to the day I can contribute more than a few sentences to a conversation about this topic.

Because I’m interested in this general topic, minha mãe gave me a book to read about the history of the 20th century entirely in Portuguese. To my surprise, I understand pretty well when I’m reading, although it takes me a lot longer to read. (Shoutout to Senora Bencini for giving me such a strong foundation in Spanish!)


“A Brief History of the 20th Century”

Regarding language, here comes the classic line: I wish I had studied more. It’s difficult to remember things because I learn much better in a classroom setting and I’ve never had formal training in Portuguese. Portuguese is written like Spanish but when you speak, the pronunciation of words is VERY different, so it is hard for me to determine when a word begins and ends in a sentence. I attribute much of my confusion to this. When I do understand, I can’t form complete (correct) sentences in Portuguese yet when speaking, so I tend to fall back on my Spanish.

Despite the confusion, I am so glad I decided to experience this. I am grateful to be here. Thank you to everyone who contributed in making this a reality. This is already one of the best experiences of my life.


A sign on our porch that reads: “In life, I don’t want much, I only want to know that I tried everything I wanted, I had everything I could, I loved everything that mattered, and I only lost what was never mine”